Before I flew to Jamaica, I told my friends and family that after that one trip, I would never go back. Having to visit the country for the worst reasons meant that I only associated it with misery, and knowing that any future visit there would remind me of that meant I’d already ruled out returning. But it turned out to be a journey of unanticipated self-discovery, leaving me with a strange sense of belonging and a renewed love of the place I come from.
My family are from Saint Elizabeth parish, equidistant from Kingston and Montego Bay, meaning it takes 2.5hrs to get to anything that even closely resembles a big city. It’s not just about distance though, it’s about infrastructure. The roads are littered with potholes, which caused us a grand total of three flat tyres in just two weeks, and when you’re somewhere with very little phone signal and zero street lighting, that basically equals some unexpected Bear Grylls-style adventuring.
‘Rural’ conjours images of quaint little provincial villages, but this area is sparse with big swathes of space in between small, one-storey homes and unfinished buildings. We stayed with family in an area called Bull Savannah which has a grand total of about 40 houses, a small school, convenience store and a bar with a tin roof and no license every 100 yards.
I could imagine my dad being in this environment. The whole area explained so many things about him that I previously hadn’t known: he walked so slow, even when he was in good health, but if you walked fast in St Elizabeth, you’d probably pass out from dehydration. He was known to his friends as Redman; well, it turns out that the earth in St Elizabeth is red, and the people are known as red-skinned.
Even more special was meeting people who knew him all his life, before he moved to the UK, and who knew my grandmother as well. We don’t have any photos of her because she died during childbirth in 1947, but somebody told me I look like her and I cannot begin to tell you how happy that made me. It made a place that had initially felt alien, feel like home. I didn’t expect to have such a bond with a place so far away and so different from where I grew up, but thankfully I do.
So I’ll go back. To eat jerk chicken with the family I now know, to check on the tree we planted with my dad’s ashes, to prop up a stool, drink a cold Red Stripe and listen to stories. I’ll go back.